Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jane Austen's Surprising Aunt Philadelphia

Sunday, March 8, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Because my newest book features a heroine who was born in India and came to England, my last few posts (here and here) have featured the English in 18th c. India. But it wasn't only younger sons who went out to India in search of fortune and adventure. English women also made the arduous journey in the hopes of finding fortune, adventure, and, most importantly, husbands in a male-dominated land where the odds would be much in their favor.

One of these adventuresome women was Philadelphia Austen Hancock, who in her later years became a favorite aunt to novelist Jane Austen. As a child, however, Philadelphia was no one's favorite. Born in 1730, she soon lost her mother in 1733, and her father in 1737. Her stepmother had no interest in raising either Philadelphia or her younger brother and sister, and as was common at the time, the three young siblings were separated and sent to live with other relatives.

While the two younger children were sent to Austen family members, Philadelphia was given to members of her mother's family, the Hampsons. The Hampsons had both money and position - Philadelphia's uncle was a baronet - but they seemed to have shared little of it with the inconvenient little girl. While Philadelphia's brother George was sent to Oxford to become a clergyman, Philadelphia was apprenticed at fifteen to a London milliner named Hester Cole. No doubt the Hampsons considered their familial obligations done.

Some modern Austen-fans choose to interpret Philadelphia's occupation as a euphemism for prostitution, jumping to the conclusion that because many milliners (and seamstresses, and mantua-makers, and parlor-maids, and just about every other trade that a young woman might attempt in 18thc. London) were so underpaid that they turned to prostitution to support themselves. The fact that Mrs. Cole's shop was in Covent Garden also makes it tempting to speculate about Philadelphia's real trade. But however disinterested the Hampsons may have been in her, it seems unlikely they'd send her to a bawdy house, nor is there any historical proof of Philadelphia earning her living in any less-than-honorable way.

Whatever the case, Philadelphia must not have found millinery to her taste, because at twenty she sailed for India, her passage paid by a relative. No one knows if she went boldly on her own, or was perhaps sent away by the Hampsons (another hint of scandal?) Either way, it must not have been an easy decision, and it's hard to imagine a young woman making such a desperate journey alone, and without any real prospects or friends waiting for her in a very foreign land. Without a dowry, her face really would have been her only fortune.

But Philadelphia's gamble paid off.  After a short time in India, she did marry, quite respectably, to Tysoe Saul Hancock, who was a surgeon with the East India Company. They had one daughter, Eliza. Again the centuries-old whispers appear, hinting that Eliza's real father was her wealthy godfather Warren Hastings, the future Governor General of India. Again, too, there is no real proof to substantiate the rumors, but Philadelphia had chosen her daughter's godfather - or her own lover - well: Hastings provided Eliza with a substantial legacy of £10,000.

In any event, Philadelphia and her daughter returned to London, while Hancock continued to toil in India. Eliza was raised as a lady, with a full compliment of lessons in dancing, French, and the harp, and all the advantages that Philadelphia hadn't had for herself. When Dr. Hancock died, the two women found London too expensive for the fashionable life they wished to live, and they went instead to Paris, where they were quickly swept up into the gay life of the French society in the last days before the Revolution. Wanting the security for Eliza that she couldn't provide herself, Philadelphia urged her towards a marriage with a French count, who died on the guillotine. (Eliza's second marriage, to her cousin Henry Austen, was both longer and happier.) While Philadelphia's decisions might not always seem today to have been the wisest for her or her daughter, she made them as a woman of her time, with limited options and resources.

Regardless of the shadows in her past, Phila (as she was known in the family) was welcomed at the home of her brother George, now a clergyman, and she was with George's wife when their daughter Jane was born. It's easy to imagine why Aunt Phila became Jane's favorite aunt: not only was she a trusted member of the family, but she also carried with her that hint of mystery and scandal, along with the exoticism of India and the sophistication of Paris - all in short supply in the home of a country clergyman.

When I look at the little miniature of Philadelphia shown here, I see only an elegantly attractive lady, with a fashionable hairstyle and a genteel smile. That little half-smile only makes me long to know the truth about her personal history, and to fill in all those scandalous gaps that time (and perhaps the well-meaning and more respectable George) have glossed over. Ahh, Jane, if only you'd written your aunt's story!

Top: Miniature portrait ring of Philadelphia Austen Hancock, by John Smart, c1768. Private collection. Photograph copyright Rowan & Rowan.


Karen Anne said...

Jane, Henry, and Eliza are characters in the latest Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, Who Buries the Dead. It's a little disconcerting, in my opinion.

Hels said...

You never know how accurate any 18th century portrait was, full sized or miniature. But this one is beautiful and very delicate. Philadelphia would have been 38 at the time.

Karen A. Chase said...

Two thoughts come to mind upon reading this. First, my historical fiction head swims with intrigue, for where scandal and inconsistent stories abide comes the opportunity to insert fiction. Second, if this aunt was in Jane Austen's life, it's surprising that Jane's stories or her own life weren't more influenced by Philadelphia. I can only assume Aunt Phila must have not been one to tell tales.

DanielleThorne said...

What a great post! I love learning new Austen facts. Thanks!

soinbhe lally said...

It is almost unthinkable that the Hamptons would deliberately have degradaded their relative since such a degredation would have reflected badly on them and their own children. There must have been a serious rupture or misdemeanour for Philadelphia to be deprived of her status as a gentlewoman and reduced to earning her living. A gentlewoman did not work for wages in Jane Austen's world. And since a degraded relative degraded her whole connection, I imagine somebody, on the Austen side of the family, intervened with some sort of allowance to allow her to resume the status that she was born to. Presumably she had some family friend or relative in India to chaperone her there. An young adventuress living unchaperoned would have been excluded from even colonial polite circles. What a story could be built around Philadelphia!

Donna Hatch said...

It does make me wonder why they were awful to family, but something similar happened in Jane Eyre, so it must not have been unheard of. Of course, there's a big difference between getting sent to school and working as a teacher, and getting sent to work in trade. The gaps between what we know sure do leave a lot of fun to fill in.

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